How are co-operatives responding to the world of work challenges?

Interview by Anca Voinea, originally published at coop news on 1st May 2019

Simel Esim heads the International Labour Organization’s Cooperatives Unit, which manages ILO activities on co-operatives and other social and solidarity economy enterprises (SSEEs). She has been at the helm of the unit since 2012. In an interview with Co-op News, she looked at the findings of the Global Commission on the Future of Work’s report released earlier this year.

What is the ILO Global Commission on Future of Work about?

The world of work is undergoing major changes. The new forces that are transforming the world of work include technological, demographic and climate changes, as well as globalisation. To understand and to effectively respond to these new challenges, the ILO has launched a Future of Work initiative. As part of this initiative, the ILO established an independent Global Commission with 27-members that includes leading global figures from business, trade unions, think tanks, governments and non-governmental organisations. The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India, which has adopted a dual strategy of trade unionism and co-operativism for its 1.8 million women informal economy members, is also represented on the commission.

What does the report say about co-operatives?

The report of the Commission, launched in Geneva on 22 January, outlines the steps needed to achieve a future of work that provides decent and sustainable work opportunities, in line with Sustainable Development Goal 8 to promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. It calls for a new, human-centred approach that allows everyone to thrive in a carbon neutral, digital age and affords them dignity, security, and equal opportunity. The report will be submitted to the centenary session of the International Labour Conference next month. The report mentions co-operatives on two issues. One in supporting women’s voice, representation and leadership. It also mentions the role of co-operatives in improving the situation of workers in the informal economy. It also notes the need to explore innovative measures that require enterprises to account for the impact of their activities on the environment and on the communities in which they operate.

How are co-operatives responding to the world of work challenges outlined in the report?

There is growing interest in economic models based on co-operation, mutualism and solidarity. The report of the Global Commission provides an opportunity to reflect on how co-operatives can contribute to creating a brighter future and deliver economic security, equal opportunity and social justice. Key issues highlighted in the report include lifelong learning, youth employment and gender equality, new forms of work, care economy, rural and informal economies, and social dialogue, and technological and environmental changes.

In terms of lifelong learning, co-operatives provide education and training for their members in order to contribute effectively to the development of their businesses. The fifth co-operative principle (Education, Training and Information) focuses on co-operatives engaging in education activities not only for their members, but also young people and the community at large towards mutualism, self-help and collaboration.

On youth employment, each year close to 40 million people enter the labour market. Co-operatives can help young people to find work and gain work experience. They can offer opportunities for professional and vocational training. The collaborative approach of working together, sharing risks and responsibilities in co-operatives and can also be appealing for young people.

Faced with the prospect of losing jobs due to enterprise failures during economic crises and subsequent transition, workers in firms with economic potential can buy out and transform the firms into worker-owned enterprises. A move towards a worker co-operative could also be attributable to the retirement of ageing owners, where there is no clear plan for the future of the enterprise.

With the rapidly ageing societies, co-operative ownership of services such as housing, leisure and care enables senior members to control decisions and lead more independent lives. Co-operatives play a complementary role to local and national governments in developing and providing improved care services in childcare, ageing, disability, reproductive and mental health, post-trauma care, and rehabilitation and prevention while meeting the needs and aspirations of their members and communities. Compared to other ownership models, they tend to provide better and fairer wages and benefits to workers.

Women’s unemployment rates remain high, and higher than men’s in many parts of the world with persisting gender wage gaps across the board. Fewer than one third of managers are women, although they are likely to be better educated than men. Women have opted to come together through co-operatives to improve their livelihoods, enhance their access to goods, markets and services and improve their collective voice and negotiation power. Co-operatives have a critical role to play in lifting constraints to women’s participation in the world of work by promoting equality of opportunity and treatment, including through pay equity and the provision of care, transport, and financial services.

The majority of co-operatives are found in rural areas where they are often a significant source of employment and are recognised as having a key role in the transition from the informal to the formal economy. Co-operatives have the potential to provide better working conditions, including adequate hours of work, social protection and safe and healthy workplaces for both their members and workers.

Co-operative insurance and mutual health insurance organisations are community and employment-based groupings that have been used for providing social protection to their members. When built up through secondary and tertiary institutions in favorable ecosystems of laws, financing and institutions they have been successful across the countries of the Global North and the South from workers’ health and childcare to old age income security.

Co-operative action to tackle discrimination ranges from the provision of services to marginalised groups of the population to making labour market access possible for discriminated groups such as women, young people, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, migrants and refugees.

Co-operatives have historically represented an alternative organisational form used by workers’ and employers’ organisations to advance social dialogue. Co-operatives have contributed to the representativeness of workers, especially those working in the informal economy and in areas where other organisational forms are limited.

New technologies are changing the way work is organised and governed, especially in emerging sectors like the platform economy. There will be significant job losses, some jobs will be transformed, and new jobs will be created that will require new sets of skills. Some see the platform economy as an economic opportunity. However, there is growing evidence that it creates unregulated spaces resulting in worker insecurity and deteriorating working conditions. Policy and legal frameworks typically lag behind these changes.

For the positive potential of technology to be realised, and its threats of increased unemployment and domination of capital over labour to be countered, new models of collective ownership and democratic governance could be used. Co-operatives can help strengthen voice and representation of workers in the platform economy. Platform co-operatives are being formed by freelancers as worker and user co-operatives in providing much needed services.

Climate change concerns are affecting the world of work in various ways. Green jobs and green enterprises are on the rise. Co-operatives can be instrumental in ensuring a just transition while working on climate change adaptation and mitigation. Mutual insurance for crops, diversification of crops, energy saving irrigation and construction techniques are a few adaptation strategies co-operatives can use. Prominent examples in mitigation include forestry and renewable energy co-operatives.

The report of the Global Commission highlights that promoting social justice through decent and sustainable work for all requires ongoing commitment and action. Some of the key trends in the changing world of work suggest that areas of the economy could benefit from community-based action, self-help and mutuality to address unmet needs. Co-operatives are engaged in collective satisfaction of insufficiently-met human needs, working toward building more cohesive social relations and more democratic communities. They can be viable means to promoting decent and sustainable work especially along with an enabling environment with appropriate policy frameworks and financial and institutional support mechanisms.

How is the ILO working with co-operative organisations such as the ICA bilaterally and multilaterally?

The ILO recognises the relevance of co-operatives to its mandate toward achieving social justice since its foundation in 1919. It is the only specialised agency of the UN with an explicit mandate on co-operatives. This is reflected in its constitution. Since 1920 the ILO has had a specialised unit on co-operatives. The ICA has a general consultative status with the ILO. It was also involved in the process leading to the adoption of the Recommendation on the Promotion of Cooperatives, 2002 (No. 193).

The ILO and the ICA are members of the Committee on the Promotion and Advancement of Cooperatives (COPAC). Most recently, the Committee contributed to the process that culminated in the adoption of the guidelines concerning statistics on co-operatives at the 20th International Conference of Labour Statisticians in 2018.

On 24 June this year the ILO and the ICA are organising an event on co-operatives and the future of work in Geneva. The two organisations’ leaders will sign a new memorandum of understanding. A jointly produced book on co-operatives and the world of work will be launched around the International Day of Co-operatives. Co-operatives for decent work is also the slogan of this year’s International Say on Co-operatives.

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